Potter and clay, king and subject, teacher and student – there are so many biblical metaphors for the relationship between God and us. More intimately, God is pictured as our friend, even (shockingly) our spouse or lover. But the most meaningful image to me at the moment is that of God as our father.
Some provisos. Firstly, I’m writing this from the perspective of being a dad, but it’s not just for dads. Secondly, I’m very aware that some people would love to have children and can’t. All that follows is not to boast about being a dad, but simply to share what it’s taught me about God as our Father.
Thirdly, in looking at the father-child relationship I can only really do so through my own experience and also my own cultural lenses. The prevailing 21st-century western dad-kid relationship is very different to that of even (say) the 19th-century western version, let alone the 1st-century or earlier biblical versions or those of other cultures round the world.
In many societies fathers are aloof and often absent, to be honoured and obeyed, not played with or spoken back to. I can see why this might be necessary in order to maintain social cohesion in certain circumstances, but it’s not the kind of relationship I know or desire. (Though I wouldn’t say no to a little more respect at times… )
Finally, the ‘father’ metaphor for God is just that, a metaphor. For those who have (say) had absent or abusive fathers it may very sadly come with just too much personal baggage to be meaningful or helpful here and now. Other images may be more appropriate.
Nonetheless, I do believe there is something special and even central in this particular metaphor of fatherhood. In fact, it almost seems to me that it isn’t strictly a metaphor, or rather is almost a metaphor in reverse. In other words, it’s the earthly fathers who are the (generally rather second-rate) copy or image, and God who is the real thing. Anything good that human fathers display is a reflection of God’s perfect fatherhood; the bad is a distortion.
A relational epiphany
For years I could pray to God as ‘Lord’ but couldn’t relate to him as ‘Father’. My early relationship with my own dad wasn’t perhaps as close as either of us might have wished (no blame). When I came to the point of becoming a dad myself, I was deeply fearful that I wouldn’t be able to understand or relate to my own children, particularly to a son; that our relationship would be distant and awkward.
In the event, I’ve been amazed at how utterly I love my children; how enjoyable and rewarding it can be to play with them, listen to them, just be with them – even when at times I also find them bewildering and infuriating.
Fatherhood (including the hard bits) has been nothing short of an epiphany, and it’s opened my eyes to the incredible depth of meaning in the image of God as our Father. It’s enriched my faith and given me a new sense of security in God’s unconditional acceptance and care for me. To call God ‘Father’ now has tremendous significance for me.
Mind you, our kids haven’t quite reached teenage yet – I may be writing from a very different perspective when they do…
One thing about being a dad is that you can’t help but see a lot of yourself in your children. It’s part both of what makes you love them and also what frustrates you about them. They bear your likeness and your imprint, both from your genes and your parenting.
This helps me understand a little of what it means to be made in the image of God – one of the things which makes the metaphor of his fatherhood so meaningful. Yes, he is utterly Other and high above us, but there is nonetheless a degree of likeness and a kinship. When he sees us, he sees something of himself. We are in a sense part of him, and that makes all the difference.
Understanding the Old Testament
Being a dad also helps me understand some difficult parts of the Bible.
Your kids will (frequently) frustrate the heck out of you with their waywardness and stubbornness. They’ll fail to listen to you or to do what you’ve asked, or they’ll do bloody-mindedly irritating things you’ve specifically asked them not to. And if you have more than one child, there will be many times when they drive you nuts with their fighting, squabbling, bickering, name-calling and tale-telling. There are times when in frustration I just want to yell at my kids, ‘For crying out loud, just get on with each other – at least stop hurting each other – and do what I’ve bloody well asked you to do a thousand times!’
It strikes me that in some ways, and perhaps worded a little differently, that’s not a bad summary of much of the Old Testament. It’s not unlike what God repeatedly keeps trying to say to his wayward children the Israelites through Moses and a succession of prophets.
God sets apart a covenant people to be his children, his family, and he gives them some basic instructions on how to live. There are certain key tasks he asks them to perform, and certain basic ways he asks them to treat each other. Like any children though, they repeatedly mess up on both counts, and like any father God is driven to frustration: ‘Just get on with each other, stop hurting each other, and do what I’ve asked you to do a thousand times – for your own sakes!’
At the moment, with smacking out of favour, the time-out or naughty step is one of the main weapons in the parent’s disciplinary arsenal (though some psychologists are now suggesting it may actually be more emotionally damaging than physical punishment). Again, it strikes me that in some ways the exiles of the Old Testament are a little like national ‘time-outs’ for God’s errant children. (Indeed, it might be possible to argue that hell itself – if taken as a period of temporary exclusion from the kingdom – could be seen as a kind of cosmic time-out.)
Some might complain that all this imagery of being children infantilises us; hinders us from growing up and becoming independent adults. That’s actually an important point. There’s a huge difference between young children, adolescents and grown-up children. The level of childish dependence and of parental influence changes over time, and the same is true of the relationship with God. He wants us to mature, to become grown-up. Being God’s children doesn’t mean we always remain spiritual babies or infants.
The relationship with parents changes fundamentally as children grow up but is never erased. There must come a separation and there may be estrangement. But parents never stop loving their children, and where there is a breakdown of relationship they never give up hope of reconciliation.
Again, the Bible tells a similar story of God as Father and his lost or straying children – which includes all of us at times. As a Father, he never forgets them; always leaves a light on for them; is always praying for their safety, always watching and waiting and yearning for their return. He is even going out actively seeking them, though never coercing; it has to be their choice to come back if and when they are ready.
Fatherhood and doctrine
Having kids also gives you a different perspective on various biblical doctrines and Christian beliefs. For example, a loving father would go to hell and back for his kids, but would never send his kids to hell. (That’s not to say that he might not let his grown-up children choose to make their own lives hell, though he would surely do all he could to help them find a better path.)
Similarly, doctrines such as the atonement and penal substitution also look different through the lens of fatherhood. Rather than God visiting his pent-up wrath on his Son like an abusive father, it becomes a picture of him taking the worst of our self-damage upon himself in order to restore the relationship with his lost children.
Indeed, fatherhood puts a different perspective on all ideas of divine punishments and discipline, as well as on theologies of suffering. As a dad, at times I have to let my kids feel the painful consequences of their decisions or behaviour, though I’d far rather not. I have to let them feel disappointment, frustration, even sorrow. I try not to punish them arbitrarily, but from their perspective it may not feel that way. And I certainly wouldn’t deliberately send terrible suffering their way in order to make them better people.
Above all, fatherhood shows you that holding right views and correct doctrine doesn’t matter a bean compared to who you are and how you live. God doesn’t expect us all to be scholars and theologians; he does expect us all to love, and love practically.
Being a dad has helped me see why God is like he is to me; why he doesn’t always answer my prayers (at least not with a ‘yes’); why he occasionally seems to stay more distant and let me mess things up and learn. I can start to understand the frustrations of parenting someone as stubborn and rude, as rebellious and pig-headed as me.
Postscript: aspects of a good father-child relationship
I don’t know any perfect human fathers, and I’m certainly not one. But from my own experience of trying and failing, here are some things I’ve learnt about dads. If they don’t always apply to us, they do surely apply to God:
- A father loves and accepts his kids no matter what. He forgives. His anger toward them is brief and atypical; his natural mode toward them is kindness, and he continues to love even in his anger. He can’t stop loving his children, no matter what. Love for them is burnt deep into his soul; it has become part of his core identity.
- A father delights in his kids, enjoys their company, talks and plays with them – and listens to them. Above all he enters into their world, their lives; he identifies with them, their thoughts and feelings, their worries and hopes. He feels their hurts as though they were his own, and would willingly bear them as his own.
- A father sets limits; he loves to give and bless but tries not to over-indulge. He won’t do for his kids what they need to learn to do for themselves, nor simply bail them out every time they get themselves in trouble. He slowly and painfully trains them in the hard lessons of reality, responsibility, reliability and relationship – of how to be mature, independent, loving people who can relate well to others. He lets his kids make their own mistakes, though it hurts them – and him – because that’s the only way they will grow. He does not coerce or control his kids, though when they are young he will sometimes override their freedoms (say if they run out into the road, or as a temporary consequence of behaviour).
- A father provides for his kids; he does his best to give them what they need (though not necessarily what they want). And this provision extends way beyond physical needs. A father would do anything to protect, support, help and develop his kids.
- And through it all he watches, he loves, rejoicing in their success and joy, suffering in their pain and loss. He bears patiently with their stroppiness, stubbornness, waywardness, foolishness, even at times their hate and rejection and misunderstanding.
Sadly, I’m frequently irritable with my kids, not wanting to be bothered or disturbed. Nonetheless, in my imperfect but total love for my kids I catch glimpses of God’s unfathomable and deeply practical father-love for each of us.